Will politics continue to plague Israel into the new year?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: The rise of Gideon Sa’ar threw Netanyahu off course, but will he make a last-minute deal with Benny Gantz to prevent an early election?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu at a Maccabi vaccine center in Tel Aviv on Sunday. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu at a Maccabi vaccine center in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
 Yamina leader Naftali Bennett appeared to hit his peak in a sharp speech to the Knesset introducing his party’s bill of no confidence in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government last Monday.
Bennett compared politics to a plague, explained why Netanyahu was infected with it and presented himself as the ultimate vaccine.
“Israel is not entering a third lockdown due to the plague of the coronavirus but due to the plague of politics, from which the government of Israel and its head do not succeed in recovering,” Bennett told the Knesset plenum. “It is too bad that the coronavirus plague is not called Naftali Bennett, because then I would be sure that someone in the government would fight it. The government continues dealing with politics and fighting us, instead of dealing with the plague itself.”
The speech went viral, receiving thousands of likes on his Facebook page, and led to him being invited to an interview on the top-rated prime-time Channel 12 news with anchorwoman Yonit Levi that presented him as the sole serious alternative to Netanyahu. Yamina reached 23 seats in the polls that night.
But the following day, Bennett’s support began collapsing.
Then-MK Gideon Sa’ar announced during that same prime-time newscast he would be leaving his Likud Party and running against Netanyahu for prime minister – a statement that Bennett had been waiting too long to officially deliver himself.
Sa’ar then scooped up three political free agents on the Right in Yoaz Hendel, Zvi Hauser and Yifat Shasha-Biton – who were expected to run with Bennett. He also made another statement that Bennett never did when he ruled out his party sitting in a government led by Netanyahu.
A poll conducted for Channel 12 on Monday – a week after Bennett’s emotional address to the Knesset – gave Yamina only 13 seats, good enough for fourth place. Sa’ar’s as-yet-unnamed party would win 21 mandates, only six behind Netanyahu’s Likud, the poll predicted.
It is very rare in the history of polling in Israel that a party falls by 10 seats in one week.
So what is Bennett going to do about it? Sources close to him said he would do absolutely nothing new.
One source close to Bennett said he would wait patiently for what he called the “Sa’ar bubble” to burst. The source said the bubble could not last long, because Sa’ar had only one issue – opposing Netanyahu – and no platform yet.
Another Bennett associate said emphatically that his strategy would not change at all in the wake of the rise of Sa’ar. Bennett would present Israeli politics as having three blocs: A “pro-Bibi bloc” of Likud, Shas and United Torah Judaism, an “anyone but Bibi bloc” of Sa’ar and parties further to the Left and a “pro-Israel” bloc of only Yamina.
“The strategy is to leave all options open,” a source close to Bennett said. “He didn’t rule out [Netanyahu] before. But it has been clear that he is running for prime minister against Netanyahu, and that will not change.”
The hope in Yamina is that just like the Sa’ar wave hit Bennett, another wave will come soon, when a new party is expected to be formed by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. That new party could take away popular MKs from Blue and White and Yesh Atid, like Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and Ofer Shelah, become the political voice of the anti-Netanyahu protest movement and include untainted, attractive fresh faces.
That wave could potentially finish off Blue and White, significantly harm Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and stem the tide of anti-Netanyahu votes to Sa’ar, putting Yamina back in second place. There are several anti-Netanyahu mandates looking for a new political home that left Blue and White for Bennett and are now with Sa’ar, but could keep moving.
It is these nomadic mandates that could sweep to victory whomever is seen as the ultimate alternative to Netanyahu at exactly the right time.
Timing is everything in politics, as evidenced by Netanyahu’s own response to Sa’ar’s rise.
When Blue and White leader Benny Gantz began his effort to disperse the Knesset and bring down Netanyahu, the expectation was that Likud would make a serious effort to get the election postponed from March to May, when it was assumed that coronavirus vaccines would be readily available to ordinary Israelis.
Instead, Netanyahu focused on getting the vaccines faster – so that by the time voters go back to the polls there would be three million Israelis who had been vaccinated, making the coronavirus less of an issue in the campaign.
Netanyahu made a point of reacting to Sa’ar’s defection for the first time at a prime time press conference that he called to talk about vaccines. If the plague is politics, as Bennett said, Netanyahu intends to inoculate voters from both Sa’ar and Bennett and present himself as the professional leader who saved Israel from the virus.
It is that mantle of the professional, statesmanlike leader that Bennett sought to take away from Netanyahu by speaking only about the coronavirus and its medical and economic implications.
To that end, he unveiled what he called a “200-day plan” this week for helping the hundreds of thousands of unemployed Israelis and providing job training for those on unpaid leave.
Bennett’s critics in politics noted what appeared to be one subtle change in strategy: He changed his profile picture on Facebook from his face with a mask to no mask. The larger photo at the top of his page is still of a masked Bennett, but taking the mask off the profile photo that is seen in Facebook news feeds was seen by Bennett’s critics as an acknowledgment even by him that coronavirus would no longer be the issue on Election Day.
SO WHAT will the agenda of the race be?
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman would love it to be matters of religion and state. That is why he pulled the publicity stunt of offering Sa’ar, Bennett and Lapid to run together with him to counter the rise of Shas and United Torah Judaism. He knew they would all say no, and now he can use that rejection to paint them all as surrendering to the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
But Bennett is probably right that the election will be about Netanyahu, just like the last several elections have been. 
Sa’ar announced on Thursday that his party would be called New Hope.
Memes presented Sa’ar and Shasha-Biton as Han Solo and Princess Leia because A New Hope is the name of the original Star Wars movie. The implication of the name is that Netanyahu is as evil as Darth Vader, the Star Wars villain who murdered defenseless children.
All but the ultimate Netanyahu haters would deem that comparison over the top. But there is no denying that Netanyahu has mastered the ruthlessness of negative campaigning better than anyone ever in Israeli politics.
When he ran against Gantz, he painted his former IDF chief of staff as a confused and crazy bankrupt businessman whose phone was hacked by Iran and may have cheated on his wife and sexually assaulted a woman in high school.
Netanyahu’s Likud has attacked Bennett’s wife and late father.
When Sa’ar challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership last December, the criticism he faced from the prime minister’s son and other close associates was below the belt.
Sa’ar spoke of “ugly attacks from inside his own political home” in his opening Likud leadership campaign rally in Or Yehuda, in which he said he would not respond with his own personal attacks on the prime minister and pleaded with his supporters to do the same.
Now the attacks on Sa’ar are expected to increase tremendously and whatever skeletons he has in his closet are likely to be taken out and emphasized in pro-Netanyahu media. The prime minister’s strategists Aaron Klein and Moshe Klughaft are known for their successes in negative campaigning in elections abroad – Klughaft in Eastern Europe and Klein in bringing Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment accusers to US President Donald Trump’s debate against Hillary Clinton right after Trump was harmed by tapes of him saying his strategy with women was to “grab ’em by the p****.”
Such attacks on Sa’ar could lead to compassion from Bennett, who is used to them. A source close to Bennett said it is possible that in the days before the deadline for lists to be submitted, they could decide to run together, as Gantz and Lapid did.
BACK THEN, the matchmaker was Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, the former IDF chief of staff on the sidelines who said he would only enter politics if he could truly make a difference.
Could another former IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, perform that role? He, too, wants to make a difference.
Eisenkot’s ties with Sa’ar go back to their days serving together as advisers to prime minister Ariel Sharon. Sa’ar was cabinet secretary and Eisenkot was Sharon’s military attaché. Bennett criticized Eisenkot’s handling of the Elor Azaria case, making him less likely to be a partner for Sa’ar if Eisenkot ends up joining the Likud defector.
But all those scenarios will remain theoretical until it is clear whether the Knesset will be dissolved on Tuesday night, the deadline to pass the state budget.
Talks between Netanyahu and Gantz are not expected to start until the last minute, and that last minute is approaching. Polls gauging Sa’ar’s strength this weekend could give a final impetus to both sides to reach a deal in the narrow window that remains.
Relying on polls is risky though, as Bennett’s roller coaster has proven once again. If one party can lose 10 seats in a week, anything can happen in a race that lasts 90 days.
So unless a remedy is found by Tuesday at midnight, that plague of politics will infect Israelis for at least three more months. But the hope is that after the fourth election in two years is over, both the coronavirus and hyper-polarized politics in Israel will finally go away forever.